Category Archives: 197 Books around the World

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies by Jokha AlharthiTitle: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
ISBN: 978-1912240166
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One thing about being on any shadow panel of any literary award is that you by default get to read great diverse literature. Being on the shadow panel of Man Booker International Prize for two years now has made my literary life so to say not only enriching but also illuminating. It has made me see perspectives, change opinions, remain steadfast about some opinions, and over all made me interact with people across the world about literature and life.

This time around, Celestial Bodies from the long and the short list is that one book that enriched my reading life and to a very large extent made me see lives that weren’t otherwise known to me. Anyway, back to Celestial Bodies. This is one of the top three books I am rooting for, for the win that is. It is a story of womanhood – of it means to the women in the book and to the society that has built structures of patriarchy to be followed. At the same time, it is about the changing socio-economic structures and how those impact the family.

There is Maya, the eldest daughter of the family who prefers not to challenge what the family expects of her and agrees to marry the son of a rich merchant. The second one, Asma seeks an education. The youngest daughter, Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who has told her that he will be his partner. All he does is immigrate to Canada and all her hopes are dashed. The younger generation then moves to Muscat and there also their lives are not easy. At the same time, the book is also about the men, whom we get to know of as we go along – Maya’s husband, his father, and not to forget the slave system at play which bothered me greatly as I was reading the book.

There is a lot going on in the book – from the emancipation of women to what men feel to the social structure of Oman, and also not to forget the younger generation. Alharthi packs all of it together tightly and not once do you feel that the strands of any story are left untended to. From the village of al-Awafi (fictional by the way) to Muscat, each phase and turn of events is seen through different eyes – sometimes unbelievable and others completely heartbreaking. The writing is empathetic for sure, and yet doesn’t shy from the grim reality of the world of patriarchy, in a land ruled by men.

Marilyn Booth’s translation is on point. It isn’t easy to translate a book of multiple narrations and sometimes also leaning toward stream of consciousness (mildly). Celestial Bodies has the dreamlike quality to it, without being superficial or flimsy and that’s what you take as a reader – the inherent story, the characters, and what you end up feeling.

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Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.